Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Taking the Trans-Siberian from Ulan-Ude

I had spent a week in Ulan-Ude. Two of those days, I was stuck mostly in bed with some intestinal bug from hell. Luckily, it didn't last long. I extended my stay because of the time I spent in bed, and I planned out the rest of my stay in Russia...at least the rest of my stay in Russia THIS time. I hope to return in a month or two. I made all the rest of my hostel and train reservations.

But now it was time to move on.  In planning the next phase of my trip, the first train out was going to be at around 6:30 in the morning. The weird thing is that all the Russian trains are on Moscow time, no matter where you are in Russia. And Ulan-Ude is five hours later than Moscow time, so I had to account for that when booking my train reservations. The next bookings I made on the Trans-Siberian were the first bookings I had made myself. This whole trip, I had had an agency book my trains on the Trans-Mongolian, because it was a necessary component of my Chinese visa that I have an itinerary and that I leave the country (before I even got there), and it was a necessary part of my Russian visa that I at least arrange the first stop. So I had planned that far ahead. But now I was on my own.

So I got up at 4:30 in the morning, to give myself a couple of hours to walk to the train station and be there at least an hour early, in case there were any glitches. I had already gone to the train station and printed out my boarding pass a couple of days before. Strangely enough, a boarding pass was necessary for this first leg, but none are required for the rest of the journey; the e-tickets are enough (even though the next leg is on the same train at a later time).

Russian trains have four classes. There is spalny wagon, which is first class, and the most expensive. Then there is kupé, which is second class, and what I booked most of the next legs on. This is the equivalent of what I traveled on the Trans-Mongolian, though it wasn't called that. It has two lower and two upper berths that can be used for sleeping, and a compartment that closes. Also the lower seats lift up, and underneath there is a compartment for storing luggage.  If you have an upper berth, there is an open space next to the need to store luggage. I was issued sheets even though it is a day trip; that worked out because I did nap some. It is really quite comfortable; I can't see the need to pay nearly twice as much for first class.  Then there is third class, or platskarny. I booked a later leg or two on this. It differs in that it has open compartments, and six berths rather than four. There are four on one side of the train that are like kupé, but without doors, and then two on the other side of the aisle. There is a fourth class; I can't remember what it is called  (it starts with an "o"), and it only has seats rather than sleeper berths. The seats are much like the berths but they pack three people into each one.  I think they are phasing out this class, and I didn't see any fourth-class seats for sale on any of the trains I booked.

I got to the station early after walking through just-above-freezing temperatures right before dawn. I had to walk across a huge, crumbling pedestrian bridge over the street to get to the train station, and there were gaping holes in the concrete where I could see below (sort of like on the Tappan Zee or George Washington bridges).

There was a railroad worker at the station waiting to start up his shift, and we struck up a conversation in halting English and Russian. His name was Sergei, and he was talkative and friendly, even given the linguistic difficulties we had. He asked me if I had any American coins to give his daughter; I did, but they were packed away somewhere deep in my backpack.  But I had a few dollar bills in a decoy wallet I had in my pocket, so I gave him one. He was really, really impressed with it, and inspected it for quite a while in wonder. Note to self: next time I travel, I want to bring about twenty dollars in ones just to hand out as souvenirs to people I meet along the way. He told me I was on the wrong platform, but rather than walk up to the pedestrian bridge again and take the right set of stairs down, I could just walk across some tracks to get there. He told me it would be the second train to arrive, so once it arrived, I just puttered across the tracks to get there.

I came up to the train as it was boarding, and there was a young provodnitsa (car attendant) taking boarding passes. She took my boarding pass and passport, and made a mock shocked face when she saw my passport pic with short hair and no beard. She was really warm and friendly to me throughout the journey, unlike the dour provodnitsa on the last leg of the Trans-Mongolian. She was even maybe a little flirtatious. She got replaced in the middle of the trip by the other provodnitsa on a shift change, who was also nice and friendly, though I didn't have as much of a rapport with her.

I shared my compartment with an elderly Russian woman, who was very chatty only in Russian even though it was apparent much of what she was saying to me was not getting through. She was highly insistent that I make my bed and set up the sleeping pad on the seat, though I would have been perfectly content to just sit and lay on the plain seat. She kept chatting on and on about stuff, and I probably only caught less than a tenth of what she said;  I would either just smile and nod, or say, "I don't understand," if I had no idea what she said and it seemed to require an answer. But that didn't seem to deter her from keeping her stream of conversation going. 

Unlike the Trans-Mongolian, where there were a large number of foreigners and English-speakers, I think I was the only foreigner and English speaker on the train, and the object of much attention from everyone. Every time I told somebody something about myself by communicating in halting Russian, English and pantomime, it got around to EVERYONE on the train through the gossip circuit. I didn't mind; it was interesting to be the center of attention. Now I know how British guys feel when they come to the US...with the exception that they can communicate.

There were a number of elementary school-age kids at the other end of the car, and for a while, they were just looking at me in amazement, whispering and giggling. Then they all formally formed a line to come up to me and say, "Hello, my name is ________," in slow English. So I shook each of their hands,  and told them my name too. After this, the boys didn't seem too interested in me any more. But the little girls kept shyly coming up to me in groups of two, after painstakingly rehearsing a sentence or two in English, and presenting their well-practiced few words to me formally, whereupon I would answer, and try to throw in as much Russian as I could. Then they would go back, practice another question to ask me, or a statement to tell me, and I would reply, and they would run off triumphantly. Sometimes the little girls would conspire with the provodnitsa in formulating questions for me. One of the girls asked me if I liked apples, and I said, "Yablki, da." (I just happened to know the word for apples in Russian). And then she shyly brought me an apple and said, "Apple, for you." I said thank you very much in English and Russian as she blushed and left, and I ate the apple.  It was delicious. Then another little girl brought me an apple, and I said,  "No thanks, I just had one." And I immediately felt bad. She seemed embarrassed, and said, "Spasiba" (thank you in Russian) as she backed away.  Aaack, my faux pas.

Everybody on the train was very friendly and curious. Most did not talk to me, but they all seemed to catch the last thing I had said to somebody else on the whisper circuit. This whole experience was not anything I would have necessarily expected on a Russian train.

The train arrived in Chita, which is in Zabaykalsky Krai, Siberia...the next administrative region over from Buryatia. We got in about 6:30 in the evening after traveling for 12 hours from Ulan-Ude. This is probably not a huge tourist destination for Europeans and Americans, and many guidebooks recommend avoiding it. But it seems like a really vibrant city to me, and I'm really glad I stopped here. The hostel was about a kilometer and a half from the bus station, but it was very easy for me to find walking there. I'm looking forward to exploring this place.

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